What I am Learning: Wait, what does your startup do?

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So, while I really hate the idea that everying must be put in terms of something that already exists, I know that it helps people to think about new ideas. I also think it can lead to some really interesting creations. So, if you are ever at a loss for what kind of startup to create, go here and click refresh a few times until it comes to you.

Oh, and if you are teacher, I think that having students go in and try and create the plans for the startup that they get from this site would yeald some awesome results.

Wait, what does your startup do?

Question 108 of 365: Why do we want to be entrepreneurs?

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Rubber band (Elastic).
Image via Wikipedia

The easy answer is that we would like to turn something out of nothing. While many of us are not in the entrepreneurial field, that is the one thing that we all quest after. It is the need to turn a problem into a solution using nothing but you mind and your ability to be more stubborn than anyone else on the issue. In the end, we would all like to make money simply by having a good idea and following it to its logical conclusion. We would like to be better than anyone else that one thing, even if we can admit that it will never quite happen like that.

I have spent much of my life running away from the fact that ideas are worth something more than just to a notebook or a blog. The entire open source aesthetic that I subscribe to is nothing more than my unwillingness to assign a value outside of a particular community of users. My penchant toward non-profit and public service is hypocritical because of the way my mind works. I am constantly seeking something that no one else knows or has figured out yet. It is (even if it is short-sighted) my greatest achievement to have people look to me for expertise that is not shared with others. The very fact that my name can be affixed to things and I can call them mine is what makes me an entrepreneur.

This is not to say that cockiness makes me an enterprising fellow. Quite the opposite. It is because I feel as though I have yet to prove my worth to those people around me that I must reach deeply into myself and produce some value from where they was none before. It is a lack of confidence in speaking, writing, and thinking that makes me want to completely change my approach and overcompensate to achieve my goals. And I believe that it is a lack of confidence that is behind all great ideas. True accomplishment is in competing with your self-doubt, and emerging triumphantly.

And I know because I used to sell super rubber bands in grade school. Flicking a rubber band was an art in those days. Whether you were twisting behind your thumb to fashion a finger gun or simply drawing it back over your nail, there was only so much aim and power that could be imparted on a single band. That is why I decided that my tripple looped super rubber bands were far superior. I would fashion them through a sophisticated knot system so that they looked like mickey mouse by the end of the transformation. They produced far better accuracy and could be shot from over triple the distance away.

I sold them for 15 cents a piece and in the few short days before the operation was shut down, business was booming. I had created something that other kids wanted, even if it was only because I capitalized on a fad (and the fact that boys liked flicking rubber bands at pretty much everything). Unfortunately, I got greedy. I brought my entire stash of rubber bands into gym class and began an ill-fated rapid fire demonstration. The gym teacher confiscated them, and I received my one and only trip to the principal’s office during grade school. After it was all done she said, “I think you can get some other rubber bands. These ones don’t really need any more of your attention.”

And that was that. I had established a perfect product-market fit, but there were external pressures on the marketplace (in the form of unfair regulatory practices) that lead to me having to close up shop. And yet, those moments never really left. I knew that having something other people truly wanted was exactly where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. While that didn’t always translate into entrepreneurship, it did make me want to become the most specialized at any given discipline until I became an integral part of the process, until I had something that other people did not.

And while this may all sound quite ambitious, I am not at all convinced that this need to be useful unique or that is tied specifically to selling “things.” Even open source programmers are trading upon favors and recognition. Even non-profits are funded based upon who they know and what they can achieve. Organizations and people that have not found a significant niche, will soon be obsolete. And that is why we are all entrepreneurs.

We are trying to parlay our skills into something that someone else will pay for. We are making ourselves and our ideas a commodities. It is just that some people (those in business, mostly) are much more outright about their intentions. Many, if not most, hide the fact that they are a commodity.  They would like to think of themselves as having a higher purpose or simply that their work does not define them. While I feel as though you can aspire to those things, I do not think that either is terribly true.

Wanting something for yourself is what being an individual is all about. It is impossible to have the self-esteem needed to get up in the morning if you didn’t want people to value you and your contributions. As for being defined by things other than work, there isn’t much evidence to support that idea. While the thing you do for a paycheck may not define who you are, the work that you do (even if you call it play) on the things that you love is what you would like to be known for. You would like to be able to do those things and have people write you a check or at least feed you and your family for them. And yet you remain shy about working toward it. Why?

What could be so significantly terrifying that would cause us to be afraid to attribute value to what we do and ask people to support that value on a regular basis? What will it take so that we can all come together and create a true knowledge exchange so that our best ideas and products and truths do not pass by without being worth something?

Perhaps if we all owned up to our entrepreneurial leanings, that would be a start. And if not that, perhaps just admit that we all sold something in elementary school. Whether it was a toy that we traded, invention or lemonade, we created an underground economy for pennies and dimes. It is not a phase we all went through. It is something that guides our decisions every day. We are all entrepreneurs. It is just that some of us don’t make any money at it.

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Question 85 of 365: How can Guerrilla ads make themselves?

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In general, advertising is incredibly derivative. Promotion forever copies the next new thing in the hopes of creating buzz or catching the latest wave of popular opinion. Guerrilla Ads are ones that are, by definition, completely unique. They work by breaking through everyday noise and recreating the mundane into something completely discontinuous.

Here are some of my favorite examples from the above link:

dfd

Guerrilla Markeing

Guerrilla Marketing

And yet, these ads are ones that take an incredible amount of thought and execution. They require just the right person to use just the right space to create the powerful message that is required to break through the noise. Because they are looking to establish something that makes you think and sticks with you, they can’t be done all of the time. They have to be created, spend their time in the limelight and then fade away. Otherwise, they just become more noise.

Even with all of their drawbacks, this kind of advertising is what I a most drawn to, other than word of mouth and networked recommendation. It is the kind of work that makes me think that there is hope for the art of persuasion in every day life. Each example of this type of advertising takes a real place and then introduces something authentic, experimental, and transformational out of it. It asks that our spaces be more than what they were designed for. It asks us to mix real life and fiction in a way that only great pieces of art can do. And that is what I would consider many of these ads: great public art.

And yet, I want Guerrilla marketing to make itself. I want it to grow organically out of the spaces that exist in our world. I want this kind of art to be the collaboration of thousands of people descending on public places and reworking the objects that have so much potential. And I want the ads to be about more than products too. I want them to be about ideas.

I want education to have guerilla advertising. I want kids to be running out of brick buildings. I want the words “School” posted on every public space so that we know that learning can happen anywhere. I want teachers depicted as writing shakespeare graffiti on walls. I want the stuff that goes on inside of our learning institutions to be incredibly visible everywhere.

I want thought to be displayed as virtue. I want idea bubbles to pop out of subway stops. I want moving walkways to have story starters on them. I want ears to be on walls, ready to listen to whatever people have to say.

I want guerilla ads for collaboration. I want large scale puzzles being put together with parking lot spaces. I want pictures of people helping one another climb up steps. I want hands reaching out from walls ready to shake and share information (and for that matter, I want contact kiosks where you can get information sent to your phone from anyone who decided to “bump” their phone into the kiosk or input their information and share their interests).

And that is just me. If we stopped taking for granted that we can only draw in designated areas or make statements on our own, then we all become guerrilla advertisers. I believe it is time that we stop letting products make the best statements in our society. Large companies can’t be the only ones to break through the noise. Little ideas and collections of people need to be able to do that too. Right?

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Question 76 of 365: How can we demonstrate progress?

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Time Machine
Image via Wikipedia

My daughter has decided to start screaming every time she goes into her room for a nap or bedtime. It isn’t that she doesn’t want to be there, it is just that it wasn’t completely on her terms. And, doing things on her terms is everything. As any parent of a three year old knows, control is the name of the game (every game).

And yet, we are making progress. I know that she understands just how much she can push before Time Out happens. I know that she is slowly starting to figure out the expectations that my wife and I have for her. Even if it is sometimes hard to see, the progress is there. She is an older, wiser, more interesting person every single day. She has good days and bad in terms of what she needs to control, but more often than not, I feel a progression is in effect. We are heading toward figuring everything out, toward co-pilot status.

Anyone on the outside, however, would probably not see the progress. Anyone who observes us out at a restaurant would see that snapshot in time and consider my daughter to be unruly at any given moment. I have become frustrated when I too can no longer see the progression. When I lose sight of the trajectory toward better behavior, I get angry with her. When she says my name for the 40th time when I am trying to put her back to bed, I use a voice that is much louder than it should be and I say “WHAT?” as if I don’t really care what she needs. This frustration shows my lack of understanding in those moments that progress is being made.

And that is the way I feel about many big projects I work on (non-child related). I get so wrapped up in them and so frustrated in the minutiae that I can’t see that we are making progress. I get so caught up in what other people are seeing as progress that I can’t take stock of what conversations are actually going to lead me to success.

I think that the biggest problem is in not being able to lay out a progression for others, not being able to take concrete enough snap shots so that I can always get a glimpse of where I have been and where I am headed. I want something that will allow me to not only chronicle everything that has been done as I would in saving documents or creating a great wiki of all of my ideas. I would like something that does a full on save state of my brain (or of my daughter’s mood and disposition toward authority) so that I can explore each part of it and see how each idea and part of the project developed. I want the ability to do a Apple Time Machine effect for my projects, where I get to go back to that moment in time and figure out just what made it so successful.

Which is, I guess what I am trying to do with Open Spokes. I’m trying to give people the ability to record videos of their ideas as they occur and then iterate off of them. I guess I am working to create a platform for exposing progression and learning. I’m designing the space for progress to become concrete.

And in that sense, I want to take what is great about blogs: regular posting with the ability to see what has come before, hyperlinking, and creating new ideas.

I want to take what is great about podcasts and vlogs: Reflection, ease of use, and conversations had in natural voice.

I want to take what is great about wikis: Collection of knowledge, editing and revision, branching off into new areas as you uncover them.

But, I want it all to be seamless. I want everyone to be able to participate without needing to know how to collaborate. I want Open Spokes to be the place where I could actually brainstorm solutions with my three year old daughter about her defiance over time. I want it to be the place that my projects can get answers for why they seem stalled or uninspired. I want to see progress, always.

And I think that is where we are headed.

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Question 75 of 365: What are the new Triple Dog Dares?

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Ralphie
Image by abbey*christine via Flickr

I’m sure that A Christmas Story has been formative for many just as it was for me. I’m also sure that many have thought about the Triple Dog Dares that they have subsequently faced as a result of that iconic line of dialogue. But, I think most people stop thinking of the things they are doing because of “dares” at some point. There comes a time when they start believing that they do not have to worry about the Schwartz’s of the world.

And yet, I would like to make the case that we are all being Triple Dog Dared on a regular basis. I would like to state for the record that we can never get away from our own personal Schwartz’s. In fact, I believe that we are responsible for more tongues stuck to flagpoles at this moment than at any other in history.

Here are the dares that I believe we are faced with every day.

  • I Triple Dog Dare you to comment or respond.
  • I Triple Dog Dare you to hire/fire me.
  • I Triple Dog Dare you to learn something new.

We are daring one another to participate, to answer our e-mails or respond to our tweets. Our dares arise as we recycle each e-mail through our inboxes, constantly sending out more and more dares for response. We put tiny stresses on one another with these tiny little Triple Dog Dares. The flagpole we get stuck to in this dare is when the e-mails and tweets just sit there, when they fester in our inboxes and Tweetdecks. Our tongues are so attached to them that after months of putting off the most inopportune e-mail responses, we can’t really even communicate about the issues that are important to us.

We dare our superiors to fire us on a daily basis. While we may not actively want to get fired, we work really hard at pushing those around us to find out what we are doing that is not in the best interests of our business, district, or entity. We spend time distracted, dispassionate, or deluded into thinking that our work always reflects upon us well. We also dare our superiors to hire us each day as well. We work hard, apply ourselves and show off our daily accomplishments. We are constantly reapplying for our jobs in this case, even as we are trying to weasel out of them and find something else that is more to our liking. The frozen flagpole in this dare is the actual job we have. We get frozen into this pattern of fired and hired habits, forcing other people to write us off entirely as both incredibly useful and utterly useless for daily work and collaboration.

The last dare I feel on a daily basis is one that involves the persistent need for learning new things. It is an ever-present dare I feel from others, to become more knowledgeable about the things that they themselves need to know. The dare compounds until I have to dedicate time to becoming an expert on an assigned topic or anticipating the next thing that someone will ask of me. The pole I get stuck to is when I get so focused on learning for others and in anticipation of my later needs that I can’t completely focus on what it is that I’m supposed to be doing right now. Because the dare is to learn something new, I get stuck not resolving what I already know and applying it to what can be created with that knowledge.

Christmas Story or not, these Triple Dog Dares are very real for me. I have become my own worst Schwartz, as have the people around me. And I would like that to change.

I would like to not feel the stress of e-mail dares. I would like to let go of the need to be fired or learn new things just for the sake of learning them. I would like to be able to make my own (or at least manage my) stress and dare myself to be better than simply placing my tongue to a flagpole. I think that at some point I may be able to do that, but right now, I will live with my Triple Dog Dares.

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Question 37 of 365: What should you do if Google decides to compete directly?

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Google competes with our jobs. We are only kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise. All of the knowledge that was known as expertise and was highly valued in a different time is now just a click away from any employee. Google directly competes with our textbooks, our reference books, and our news to a great degree. It competes with teachers for their knowledge, programmers for their ability to create applications, and journalists for their ability to report widely. They have the competitive edge in all of those spaces simply because they get rid of all of the friction. The search bar gets beats a scope and sequence of curriculum, an API beats a proprietary software program, and online syndication beats increasingly lower paid circulation.

Yet, most of us do not see Google as directly competing with our interests. We use Google, and many of us love Google. We filter everything through our Gmail accounts. We use Google Docs to edit and store our important information and presentations. We plan out all of our daily events in a calendar that reaches farther than a daily planner ever could.

We see them as an incredibly useful and “non-evil” company. How is it that we are so comfortable to outsource large portions of our jobs to a service that we continue to find endearing?

I continue to come back to the example of how teaching and learning has changed in the era of Google. Before Google indexed the world’s information, teachers, the library (including the encyclopedia), and other expert “people” were one of the only ways in which to get the knowledge required to earn the grade you wanted. There was no self-paced inquiry driven model for figuring out the dates of when something happened or the cause and effect of a war (without huge dependence on the teacher, books, and experts that is). Teachers occupied classrooms the same as they do now, but they were relied on for the information in a way that can’t be said of today’s teacher.

That means that fundamentally, teaching is different now. It has to be. When Google went head to head with teachers on the basis of their wide breadth of knowledge, Google won. So, they forced teachers to shift their focus to the activity and experience of learning rather than the “stuff” of learning. While this may not be universally true, students come to class with devices in their pockets capable of relaying all of the content for a given class. The teacher must respect that, and find a different place to compete for the attention of students. They must find a new “market” that Google can’t yet compete with.

Authors, Journalists, Programmers, and any other specialization that Google has put in their sites must do the same. In fact, we must all find markets that Google cannot penetrate if we want to stay employed. The average worker cannot be an information expert, rather she must be an integration expert. She must be able to take the information that Google spits out at her and make sense of it, integrating it into the systems that currently exist in her company. The folks in IT that used to be in charge of setting up calendar, mail and disk images to be maintained and upgraded must find another way to occupy their time. They have to find a way to take what Google can offer and train with it, implement it better, or build on top of it. Even the person that makes things must be able to iterate faster upon the product line because of how easy it is to produce rapid prototypes and harness the power of the crowd to distribute the manufacturing process.

I had a conversation with Ashton recently, my co-founder of Open Spokes, discussing what would happen if Google moved into our space before we were really ready to launch. We talked about how scary that proposition was. However, I realize now that it is only scary if you are so attached to the idea of what it is that you are “selling” that you can’t find a new space to be in. While direct competition with Google can be done, that isn’t really the point. If Google has decided to develop something that competes with your “product”, you must realize that your “product” as you have defined it isn’t your core business. Just as with teaching, the core business of schools isn’t the information, it is the learning itself. When Google moved into the news space, newspapers needed to realize that information can’t be their core business anymore. Their core business must be about the process of connecting individuals with the information and people that are most important to them. If news is to survive, it has to focus on the conversation as much as the content.

So, what should you do when Google comes for you? Pivot and believe in yourself enough to know that your “core business” can never be outsourced. As a person and as a contributor, you will always have value so long as you never stop working toward finding a space where relationships are the focus and not information. I still believe that relationships and the structures we build around them is one thing that Google will never be able to index.

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Question 33 of 365: Why should we jump off a cliff?

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My experiences attending the Boulder/Denver new technology meetings, and more recently Educon 2.2, have really gotten me thinking about just how much benefit there is in jumping off of a cliff. Let me clarify. The most inspiring people at these events are ones that have stopped working for others’ ideas and started working for their own. The most interesting conversations are about ways in which individuals have found to risk a large portion of themselves in the hopes of creating something that exists nowhere else. Chris Lehmann has done this at the Science Leadership Academy. Natty Zola has done this at Everlater. They took what expertise they had and they decided that pretty much any day of the week spent in a freefall toward their ideal life is better than the best vacation from the ordinary.

And yet, seeing these examples of people who have jumped off of a cliff really doesn’t make it that much more inciting to do so yourself. There is still the chance that there will be no parachute in that backpack of yours. It is also pretty likely that no one will be jumping with you. You will probably have to navigate to a safe landing without GPS guidance or the help of friends who are holding on and trying to help you beat the wind resistance.

So, why do it?

You may feel a sense of happiness, accomplishment or ownership if it works out, but there are so many more reasons to not leave your current work. Each part of you that craves stability and uniformity calls to you and tells you no. The timing is always wrong. The environment just isn’t right. Other people are going to beat you to it or going to take the credit. You won’t get any sleep and your waking hours you do have will be filled with nothing but the crushing G-forces that are pressing down on your body as you fall toward the unknown.

The stress is just too much, and yet that is the reason why you must jump.

You must jump because everything is telling you not to. You must jump because your instincts are wrong. You must jump because even the sensation of going “splat” on the ground is fantastic. It is the scraping you off of the earth that is the painful part. There are plenty of people to do that for you, though. People really do want to see you try again. They want to see you whizz by them at 100 miles an hour, even if they know you will be the same pancake at the end of the dive. It is a morbid fascination that everyone has in wanting to see people do the things that they can’t. And yet, you can do this. You must.

I will jump off of the cliff soon. Not because I think that there is some virtue in it or because I know that the parachute will open; I will jump off because there is no alternative for me. There isn’t anything else to do once I have climbed up and seen everything that there is to see. I have looked along the route and gathered the information I need at the top. It is beautiful at the precipice, but there isn’t much to do up there. The only way for me to see something new is to jump. I want to find the perspective that will lead me to my next climb. What I will be going after when I leap is still up for grabs, however. Let me know if you have any ideas.

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